The mobile landscape has changed dramatically in recent times. Devices we once considered mobile are now considered baggage as people opt for real mobility that meets their needs instead of a PC in a smaller box. That said, the latest netbooks seem to be bridging the gap between what we considered mobility just a short six months ago, and the traditional laptop.
net.work posed a few questions to Justin Spratt, manager Mobile Voice Solutions at Internet Solutions, to get a take on what he had to say on the subject.
Justin Spratt, manager Mobile Voice Solutions at Internet Solutions
[net.work] Do mobile workers really need a desktop replacement? What work is not done on the Internet or in your inbox? A small, simple device will do most of the time.
[Spratt] There are and will continue to be (at least for the next five years) two types of mobility platforms that the ‘digital First World’ (clearly underdeveloped nations are completely different and focus solely on mobile telephony) will demand:
The handheld must be the form factor of a phone (which is the primary requirement) that delivers the e-mail (secondary) and finally camera and music (I would say these are joint third – the split being even in the market).
Web browsing is a tiny fraction of usage, but there is a massive pent-up demand, it just needs a standard interface, something WAP could not achieve (Why? There are a plethora of mobile phones, each with its own framework – but that is a whole story on its own).
The prime example of the best mobile device is the iPhone, and this is definitely the window to see what things will look like in the future. Look at the haptics (touch screen – you will see massive improvements here); location-based services (LBS – uses GPS coordinates); music; seamless integration to 'the hub' (laptop – see below).
It has some problems in that it is trying to be all things to all people (read: feature bloat) and with its 3G chipset, but the market is adopting in spite of these due to the ‘Mac cult/Jobs’ love affair. Even Jobs does not try to sell the iPhone as the only device. For Jobs, the Mac (read: laptop) is the hub and everything else are nodes that connect in to that hub to get their information. Interestingly, Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s new(ish) chief architect ascribes to this theory too. Ozzie calls this ‘Services + Plus’ – the plus meaning the desktop is the hub.
The laptop is replacing the desktop, that is for sure, but the market is also demanding that this be ultra mobile too – hence the push for greater battery life (Dell has just issued a laptop that claims 19 hours battery); Wi-Fi chips and extension boards for 3G cards and dongles.
The user interface on the phones is too small to do everything and the experience too taxing, so people need the laptop as the interface to do most of the ‘work’. This device must then also be interoperable with all other nodes – TV; music system(s); digital photo frames; DSL routers and so on.
So it is the laptop that is still the epicentre of the digital First World by a long way.
The fact that PDA adoption rates were so small for almost a decade is a testament to this. Only once they had the phone functionality was there that watershed moment of ubiquity.
Even now, I would argue that although most of our time is spent on them, they are still not good enough to do the work/fun stuff.
In summary, the laptop is replacing the desktop, and thus, we still need a desktop replacement. I do not see this requirement going in the foreseeable future. The reason is because the usability (Virgin Mobile UK just spent R15m on usability just for their website in the UK, so it counts!) of phones is still low enough that interactions with the device average no more than a few minutes, while a large chunk of work and fun require longer than this. Enter: laptop. As much as there will be convergence (I am a big believer), people will never use only one device for all the interactions. Ever.
Looking further into the future, I believe that eventually, the laptop will become just a node too, and every personal device will interact with ‘The Cloud’ (aka Internet – web browsing; e-mail and all our files).
[net.work] Laptops, PDAs, smartphones and gadgets of all types will soon converge into a small form factor ultra-mobile device. What will it look like? Do the netbooks of today do the job?
[Spratt] One word: iPhone. It is far from perfect (aforementioned feature bloat is but one example), but we have definitely moved to a new S curve that shows a window to what future devices will look like.
The main barrier now to further convergence is battery life, but the composite of phone; e-mail; camera; web browsing; music; LBS (location-based services and searches), and so on, is the what the device will have. I am also not a believer in one size fits all, so you will see different variants of the iPhone, much like you have with the iPod (not everyone liked driving Ford’s black Model T!)
As for netbooks, they will not become prevalent until ‘The Cloud’ becomes robust enough, and for me, that is still a few years away (see the recent outages with GMail; Google docs; Amazon’s EC3, and so on – as much as I love SaaS* and The Cloud, it still has some maturing to do).
Why? Because I still need my serious processing and storage to lie somewhere, and with a netbook, that can only be ‘The Cloud’ or I need to buy ANOTHER computer, which will not happen. ‘The Cloud’ is the solution, and that needs maturity. Until then, the form factor will be the mobile phone, and more so, the iPhone.
* (SaaS = software as a service – delivered over the Internet versus onsite deployments)
[net.work] And on the topic of convergence, the user drive behind convergence will be to task-specific devices instead of the everything-in-an-ugly-box trend we suffer from today. Is this a realistic assessment?
[Spratt] Yes. There will be a drive to get a ‘Swiss-army-knife’ solution, but it will never completely work. Task specific devices will still remain high. One example: I do not really want to take my iPhone into the gym – it looks silly; too big; and too expensive to sweat on it – for gym, I want a tiny little Nano iPod.
[net.work] Given the prices of these devices they will remain tools for specific users and uses and will not become a mainstream option for most users.
[Spratt] I do not think price will be the major issue – economies of scale can be derived very early on, on much lower volumes than used to be the case. But I do think that they might stay niche products based on usage.